siloOn Studio Tendra, Baldur Bjarnason has been writing a series of posts on e-books relating to the missed opportunities that make e-books not as good as regular books. In his first two posts, about e-book silos (“silo” being the term for an ecosystem that locks the user in), he discusses the way that the current crop of one-size-fits-all ereader applications cater to the lowest common denominator but fall short where readers for special needs could help students, researchers, writers, comic book fans, and so forth. They also make it difficult to export notes and annotations made while reading the book into any meaningful form.

His third post discusses cognitive mapping, the way that we subconsciously use physical artifacts such as location on a page or how far into a paper book we are to help us keep track of “where” we are. The lack of this in an e-book, he writes, is a big problem when it comes to retaining what he reads.

Like so many other readers, cognitive mapping is a major part of how I remember what I read and it’s a technique that’s utterly useless when you’re reading an ebook. I read a book and a part of how I remember what I remember is spatial mapping. I remember roughly how far into the book the passage was and where on the page. Combined with copious usage of small post-its this makes it very easy to remember passages and reacquire them when needed.

He admits that he doesn’t have any solutions to offer beyond that it needs to be easier to map locations in books. I’m not sure what to make of his arguments here. I don’t recall having had problems retaining what I read in e-books versus print books, and I’m able to map well enough using the percentage of completion mark or bar on my various reading devices, though I suppose it could be a subconscious thing.

In the last (so far) post, Bjarnason sums up with a contention that “We have to make ebooks worth it.”

We are facing the very real risk of limiting ebooks to the role, market position, and capabilities of mass market paperbacks. Remove paperbacks. Add ebooks. Keep the overall system the same with few changes, maybe a bit of consolidation.

I would point out that, for people who just want to read mass market books, e-books are “worth it” already. But I’ll agree that they could be made more worthwhile for other people too.

He suggests there should be more and better tools for reading, writing, and learning from books, “democratized” tools for creating them, “more peer-like” relationships between writers and readers, and various other ideas for improving things.

The problem that we run into, though, is how do we bell the cat? Bjarnason doesn’t offer any suggestions about how to make them actually happen. Who even can bell the cat in today’s publishing environment, when most e-books are still sold locked down and locked into one reader format with DRM? Back in the day, some e-book companies might license their DRM to each other, as eReader did for Stanza, but given how much a part of every major e-book store’s strategy vendor lock-in is I don’t see that happening now.

So you only see innovation in readers like Marvin that work together with Calibre, Dropbox, and other useful applications, but just do DRM-free which means the vast majority of readers who have no ability (or desire) to unlock their books will miss out.

Unless, of course, more publishers drop DRM from their books. It’s hard to imagine that happening, given that they’ve historically clung to it like a wino to his bottle. I remember when Tor first tried to go DRM-free and didn’t even make it a whole day before a Holtzbrinck exec put the brakes on. eReader veteran John Siracusa wrote that one publisher even commissioned a Department of Defense-level security analysis on eReader’s DRM.

But on the other hand, publishers are starting to wake up to the realization that DRM is a sword that cuts both ways, or perhaps a handcuff that locks the cop to the prisoner as well as the prisoner to the cop would be a better analogy. With the platform lock-in DRM allowed, they essentially handed Amazon the keys to the kingdom, though they didn’t realize it at the time. And their “solution” to this problem got them dragged into antitrust court and saddled with settlements that return things to the old status quo temporarily—and if the penalties against Apple go as expected, it could throw a wrench into their spokes for years to come.

But if the publishers have learned their lesson, and they’re serious about wanting to give people incentive to buy from other places besides Amazon, maybe they might start listening to people like Matteo Berlucchi who suggested they all go DRM-free, and follow the examples of Baen and Tor’s more successful second attempt to drop DRM. After all, running sales in other places can only go so far. E-book fans aren’t going to want to have some books on one platform and some on another, so that could keep them from buying things that they can’t use with their “main” reader.

Dropping DRM would give third party readers such as Marvin more room to innovate, and give people more incentive to use them. But even if that happened, I have to wonder just how many people would bother. Sure e-books could be more than they are, but most of the people who use them now use them for what they are. If you build a specialized e-reader, will people come?

Still, we’ll never know if it doesn’t happen. And I for one would love to see it get the chance. I’m still skeptical more e-publishers will follow the trail blazed by Baen and Tor, but I didn’t expect music studios to drop DRM on their MP3s so soon after the scourge of Napster either. So maybe we’ll see.


  1. DRM certainly enables the silos of customer lock-in but there is also the slowness with which ePub 3 is being implemented in eReaders. Even without DRM, there would be the fragmentation of eReaders to contend with. I wish someone with the knowledge would create a matrix of ePub 3 compliance on a feature by feature basis. I think that would be very interesting.

  2. As Bjarnason uses it, the cognitive map idea sounds a lot like the loci method of memorization. The loci method is quite effective in remembering factual data where there is real physical space or even descriptions of physical space such as in the itinerary of a character in a novel or historical narrative. These memorial markers, however, have little to do with the physical attributes of a paper book or the lack of them in an eBook.
    There is also the concept map which is more abstract in that it notes the relationships between and among ideas or concepts. That, too, is unrelated to the physicality of a book.
    Good eReaders support note taking while reading so retention need not be an unaided mental pursuit. Thus, I am not convinced that cognitive or conceptual mapping is not just as effective in eBooks as in pBooks.

  3. If screen books and print books are the same why are they different? Cognitive mapping aside, their more distinctive mapping includes different distribution and delivery systems, different genres of dominance, and different navigational skills. There may well be different cognitive mapping features in comparison but these are not unanticipated since one presents all the pages on a given page and another presents all the pages on a separate “device”.

    My remark here is how much attention is applied to quantifying differences and similarities while book creators, producers, and publishers already understand these, at least in context with consumers in general. Where more attention is needed is in the eerie complementary aspects of screen and print books; how they work together. Their increasingly persistent co-existence needs some kind if explanation.

    For example, airline schedules, encyclopedias, dictionaries were once printed in a situation without screen alternatives. These and other genres have migrated to more useful electronic formats. At the same time paper book publishing appears to grow as it contracts! The demography of books is sorting itself into more functional enclaves where these distinctive products can better serve readers.

    For the moment this is a sorting process in motion and book creators, producers and publishers are currently utilizing a hybrid approach; frequently selling both screen and print versions of the same title. Soon the industry will begin a focus on the eerie complementary interdependence of print and screen books where new profit and product lurks. The scholarly community crossing book and literary studies is already moving there.

  4. Of course ebooks as they currently exist are fine for many people. But in assuming that this is acceptable you are also assuming a stable media industry. In entering the digital arena books (e- or not) are brought into direct competition with not only other time wasters (games, video, etc.) but other forms of reading, namely the web and apps.

    If the ebook ecosystem cannot support a diversity of content and interfaces, the web and apps will step in to fill the gaps.

    They have already begun to take over areas of specialised analysis. You currently can find wine-tasters, lens reviewers, and economists running subscription websites with writing, analysis, charts, and data that is usually unavailable in either print or ebook form.

    It’s unrealistic to expect profitable niches to remain uncontested. During the print era, most of the world’s expertise on how to target print media was consolidated among the world’s publishers. But these same entities are, if anything, among the more clueless companies around when it comes to digital, the web, and apps.

    So, in the long term I don’t think it’s a question of publishers holding us back but of them slowly being encircled and swamped by outside competitors.


    Many non-fiction titles that are written to help the reader solve a problem could be replaced with a well-designed tool (or an extension to an existing tool) that enables the reader to easily solve the problem directly. And if the tools developer does their job properly, the tool can be designed specifically to make skills development natural and easy. Imagine a book on photoshop replaced by a series of interactive tutorials built as a photoshop extension: learning takes place within the context where the skills are to be applied.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail